Browns owner Jimmy Haslam is not only determined to transform his new team into a winner, but he’s also on a mission to build its brand.
Evidence of the Haslam family’s marketing machine will take center stage when the documentary series NFL Road Tested: The Cleveland Browns premieres at 10 p.m. Tuesday on Travel Channel. The show promises to give viewers a behind-the-scenes look at the Browns and how the franchise orchestrates road trips.
“I think the Cleveland Browns are, candidly, a tremendous brand that has been under marketed,” Haslam said Thursday in a phone interview with the Beacon Journal. “This is a great attempt — Travel has a tremendous viewership — to continue to strengthen that brand.”
Middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said the players are excited to be ushered into the Haslam era partly because of the organization’s shift to a more aggressive marketing approach.
“That’s what’s going to be exciting about Cleveland moving forward,” Jackson said. “He’s going to bring excitement, he’s going to bring people and he’s going to get outside forces to notice Cleveland and notice the guys in this locker room. We’ve got a lot of good players. It’s about time that someone actually comes in and actually understands the business.”
Like most of Haslam’s business endeavors, this one is a family affair. Haslam’s wife, Dee, is the CEO and founder of RIVR Media, which has joined NFL Films and Travel Channel to make the show. The Haslams’ son-in-law, J.W. Johnson, is the supervising producer.
“She and her team were brainstorming about potential shows and the idea came up about doing something on details involved and logistics in travel for an NFL team,” said Haslam, whose family owns truck-stop empire Pilot Flying J. “Obviously, the best team to do that with was the Cleveland Browns.”
HBO’s hit series Hard Knocks has set the bar for NFL reality shows by giving viewers a raw, uncensored look at franchises during training camp and the preseason. Haslam believes NFL Road Tested will have a different vibe.
“I think I would describe it as, don’t laugh when I say this, a softer version of Hard Knocks,” he said. “First of all, remember, we’re during the season. So it’s a little bit different than Hard Knocks. But there will be lots of behind-the-scenes shots of what goes on with an NFL team whether it be the travel portion of the team, practice, what the guys do in their off time. There’s time with myself, coaches, management, et cetera.”
Haslam conceded some who work at the Browns’ headquarters in Berea were skeptical when approached with the idea.
“I think initially everybody was a little bit [hesitant],” Haslam said. “[They said], ‘Now tell us what’s going on. What’s going to be on the record and what’s going to be off the record?’ But NFL Films and Travel did a great job. I think it’s gone remarkably well, and the longer it’s gone on, the more comfortable everybody’s gotten with the process.”
Browns coach Pat Shurmur often preaches the importance of keeping certain information “in house.” So it’s no surprise he had concerns about camera crews invading the practice facility.
“I do believe in the privacy of some of the things that go on,” Shurmur said. “My biggest concern during the year, of course, is if it’s a distraction to the preparation or if there’s some competitive advantage that we’re giving away to our opponents. I haven’t seen what’s going to be run on [Tuesday], but I’m sure it will be very professional and very interesting for the people that watch it.”
Haslam understands Shurmur’s philosophy. It’s one reason he’s not sure whether he would sign up for Hard Knocks in the future, though he hasn’t ruled it out.
“I think we’ll have to see there,” Haslam said. “The one thing we would never want to do — we were very careful here and Travel and NFL Films did a great job — is you don’t want to detract from our main product and main goal, which is winning football games. And I’m not familiar enough with what all goes on behind the scenes [with Hard Knocks] in terms of interfering or not interfering with your football operations.”
Some Browns players have worn microphones during practice, and the team’s brass has been interviewed. Tight end Benjamin Watson, though, does not believe the filming of the show has interfered with anyone’s focus.
“The cameras have been out, but they seem to be incognito for the most part,” Watson said. “During practice, they’re there sometimes. But I think the cool thing they’ve tried to do is for it not to be an acting show. They’re trying to get candid shots of practice, of guys interacting in the weight room, the lunchroom. They want to be as unseen as possible because they want to get natural shots.”
The first of five half-hour episodes will be set during the weeks of the Browns’ Oct. 7 road game against the New York Giants and their Nov. 4 home game against the Baltimore Ravens. The rest of the episodes will feature preparations for away games against the Dallas Cowboys (Nov. 18), Oakland Raiders (today), Denver Broncos (Dec. 23) and Pittsburgh Steelers (Dec. 30).
The show’s crew traveled to Austin, Texas, to visit kicker Phil Dawson and his family during the bye week. It also tagged along for a charity event hosted by Watson and his wife, Kirsten, a dinner for the team’s defensive players and a Cavaliers game that quarterback Brandon Weeden and running back Trent Richardson attended.
“That whole thing’s been fun,” Dawson said. “I’ve gotten to know the [crew], and it makes you a little more careful how you conduct yourself. That’s probably a good reminder.
“I think guys have enjoyed getting to tell their stories. And unlike Hard Knocks, I think this one’s a little more off the field, the behind-the-scenes stuff, not necessarily just football.”
Weeden is among the players who believe the show will be positive for the team and is eager for the debut.
“It’s kind of life outside of football, and it kind of gives people a feel for what we go through on a daily basis, which I think is cool,” Weeden said. “Some people probably don’t realize the hours, the time, the stuff we go through on a daily basis and then after you’re done, all the other obligations you have.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com.browns.abj.